Tuesday, June 8, 2010

State failing to protect children

State failing to protect children
Tue, Jun 08, 2010

A YEAR AGO the Ryan Report exposed in chilling detail how vulnerable children placed in care were sexually or physically abused for decades. Just as disturbing was the finding that those in power who had the authority to intervene did not do so. The Government pledged to act. Never again, it said, would the State turn a blind eye to the suffering of children in need of care and protection. Twelve months on, what has changed?

Precious little, it appears. All indications are that the State’s child protection system is continuing to fail many vulnerable young people, while health authorities are not taking their statutory duties seriously. In recent weeks we have learned that hundreds of children in foster care are living with unapproved carers; significant numbers of children in care have not been visited by social workers for up to a decade; and crucial files relating to children in care are missing.

Incredibly, we are only beginning to learn how many young people have died while in State care or in contact with services. A fortnight ago the number who have died over the past decade was 23. A week ago it rose to 37. On Friday, the Health Service Executive (HSE) announced a further increase to at least 188. We can only assume that some young people who died in care have been quietly forgotten by a system that failed to protect them.

There was little expectation of dramatic developments in the 12 months after the Ryan Report. But a change in the culture of excessive secrecy at official level is the least we could have anticipated. Again, there is little sign of it. The HSE says legal obstacles mean it cannot hand over files on children who died in care to a review group set up by the Minister of State for Children. The in camera rule exists, rightly, to protect the identity of children. But there are legitimate ways to circumvent these rules where the public interest demands it.

Many individual social workers are doing their best to protect children but they are let down by a chaotic and under-resourced system. There have been several policy announcements over the past year. But, overall, progress has been slow. There has been a welcome pledge to recruit an additional 200 social workers and ensure all children are allocated an individual social worker. But no lasting legislative or policy change has been achieved. In addition, sustained investment is required to move away from a crisis management approach in favour of a system that supports families before problems escalate into crises and provides aftercare for young people when they leave State care.

This is just the start. More radical changes may be needed. Given the extent of the failings and mismanagement identified to date, it is time to examine whether the best interests of social services are served by continuing to operate under the aegis of the HSE which is dominated by the concerns of the wider health service including hospitals and primary care. Too many childhoods have been scarred or damaged – or worse – as a result of official inaction in the past. This must not be repeated.

© 2010 The Irish Times

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